What the Wasteland Saw: A Tail of Resilience

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Researchers scour the core of the Atacama, a region known as “absolute desert.”
(Photos courtesy of Claudio Latorre)

Life is scarce here in the heart of the Atacama Desert. Nothing grows. Rain calls twice a century, and never leaves a message. This is one of the world’s most desiccated landscapes, a 600-mile strip along Chile’s western coast that stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes Mountains. And, oh yeah: It’s been this way for about 150 million years.

If you were an early colonizer of the Americas, making your way down from the Bering Land Strait during the Last Ice Age, the Atacama would have loomed before you as a stretch of pure wasteland. No food, no shade, no water: this would be the place to avoid. You’d be better off traveling down the coast, or even braving the highlands of the cooler Altiplano to the east. That’s why, when archaeologists go out looking for early human settlements, they tend to write off this barren deathtrap. Harsh and inhospitable, they say, the Atacama was a barrier to life.

But was it? Read the rest of this entry »


Discovering the Known

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See that bizarre-looking mushroom above? I discovered it in July while on a birthday hike alone through Maryland’s Patapsco Valley State Park. Its strange whiteness made it hard to miss among the yellows and browns of dead leaves and rotting wood on the forest floor.

But more importantly, I discovered it. Indian Pipe was discovered before. Hence, its common name is Indian Pipe. If I were its first discoverer, it would be known as the Maryland Chalk Stalk, or Cookies ‘n Cream, or the Martian Oreo. Probably that last one just to mess with people. But still, I discovered it.

Discovery is a funny concept and I’m not sure how to explain it, but I’ll do my damnedest to illustrate what I mean.

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Down North

Fra Mauro Map

Sometimes I like to spend my idle hours wandering Google Maps. Maybe I’ll hunt for a remote chunk of the Great Wall of China, or look for that mountain in the Adirondacks I hiked back in 2007, or wonder what’s up with a tiny village with dirt roads in Greenland.

But my favorite tourism-by-satellite locale is North Korea. Car traffic on North Korean streets is extremely sparse, even in the country’s biggest cities, giving them an eerie feel, as if they’ve been abandoned. At least you can often make out small blurry smudges that are almost certainly people going about their day, unaware that Google is letting some American in a cozy dining room eyeball them from afar.

Of course, the quilt of satellite photos that make these maps is a recent phenomenon. Old world maps, for which crafters had to mix stories from travelers with their own imaginations are even more enchanting.

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Human Minds Vs. Large Numbers

Imagine 70 sextillion of these.  Got it? Ok, that's an estimate of how many stars are in the universe.

Imagine 70 sextillion of these. Got it? Ok, that’s an estimate of how many stars are in the universe.

A few months ago I was playing with my cousin’s kids at a beach- sandcastles and kicking sand and burying feet and the lot. One of the two was three and a half, the other one and a half. Their mother came down with a new set of sand toys and we all got excited. “Do you know which one of these sand toys looks like an animal that doesn’t exist any more?” I asked.

Ellie, the younger one, pointed to the sand toy in the shape of a penguin. “Are you being mischievous?” I asked. “A world without penguins would be a sad one!” I got a seriously blank look in return. Then it hit me- they had no idea what mischievous meant. Time to talk little-kid. “It’s the dinosaur,” I said, “all of the dinosaurs died out a long long time ago.”

“When I was a baby?” Abby asked, the three and a half year old. Uh-oh. No concept of time or numbers, either. “No,” I said, “a long, long, long, long, looooonnnng time ago. Before you were born.”

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